Elle (2016) / Drama-Thriller
MPAA Rated: R for violence involving sexual assault, disturbing sexual content, some grisly images, brief graphic nudity, and language
Running Time: 130 min.
Cast: Isabelle Huppert, Charles Berling, Laurent Lafitte, Jonas Bloquet, Alice Isaaz, Judith Magre, Christian Berkel, Anne Consigny, Virginie Efira,
Director: Paul Verhoeven
Screenplay: David Birke (based on a novel by Philippe Djian); translated to French by Harold Manning
Review published February 5, 2017
Isabelle Huppert (Things to Come, Louder Than Bombs) stars as Michele Leblanc, the manager of a video-game company. Michelle is raped by a masked man in her own home. Because of her checkered past, she decides to not report it to the police, and is reticent to tell friends right away. The perpetrator continues to stalk Michele, causing her to seek measures to protect herself, yet she is also conflicted by her fantasies, both terrifying and exhilirating, of what might happen should she be found in that position again.
Despite being out of the public discussion for quite a while, director Paul Verhoeven (Hollow Man, Total Recall) continues to make darkly comic and disturbing films that tread the delicate line between tragedy and exploitation. The story starts with a brutal depiction of a violent sexual assault, which often only occurs in films that are deadly serious, and then we watch the victim regain her composure and continue about her life, not letting the terror of the event overtake her. This sets us off guard, wondering if Verhoeven is being a little too flippant about a subject like rape, and then we discover that Michelle has experienced even more traumatic events in her childhood that she has had to contend with. Those traumas have made her both a victim as well as a person who has been regularly publicly scorned, to the point where going to the authorities, who will dig into her past yet again, seems an option she'd rather not pursue.
Elle has been adapted into English by David Birke (13 Sins, Dahmer) from a French 2012 Philippe Djian novel called "Oh...", subsequently translated to the French language by Harold Manning. It had been originally meant to be an English-language production, but Verhoeven couldn't envision any American actress giving the part their all in the manner French actress Isabelle Huppert would, so he had the screenplay re-translated to be set in France. It's not easy to label the film into a comfortable genre, as it sometimes plays for dramatic effect, others comedic, and others as a thriller, occasionally as all three within the same scene. Huppert, for her part, would receive her first Oscar nomination in her highly esteemed forty-year career for the role.
Despite the film beginning with the rape and returning to deal with the aftermath, the story doesn't dwell on it entirely. Michele also contends with her wayward son (Bloquet, 3 Days to Kill) and his battleax of a pregnant girlfriend (Isaaz, One Wild Moment), a panther of a mother (Magre, Jesus of Montreal) in a relationship with a local playboy, her dealings with the young men at work in trying to produce a graphically violent video game, her on-and-off affair with the husband (Berkel, The Man from UNCLE) of one of her best friends (Consigny, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly), her difficulties still dealing with her childhood trauma with her father, and her subsequent crush on the younger married man next door (Lafitte, The Crimson Rivers). However, the rape does spring its ugly head, especially as she begins to get further disturbing messages from the perpetrator, who seems to be persistently monitoring her activities, perhaps hoping for a repeat assault. It could be any of the men she knows in her life, or a complete stranger, and Michele, who sets about buying home protection, is intrigued to figure out what's going on before it happens again.
As a mystery, it is quite loose-hanging in its way, and though red herrings abound in the screenplay, Verhoeven doesn't really put a great deal of emphasis on trying to mask the culprit so that we can have a shocking reveal later. To his credit, the identity of the rapist isn't as important to the film as the character study of Michele's reaction to it directly, as well as how it governs how she behaves in other facets of her dysfunctional life. It's more of a psychological portrait of a woman who has been dealing with trauma all of her life more so than a revenge thriller, though it is fascinating to watch as she struggles between her own fears and her perverse desires to take control of her situation and become the predator.
If you've been anxious for Verhoeven to return to making sexy, sordid, provocative films again, you'll get your wish with Elle, even though some may find the treatment of rape within the construct of a mostly entertaining film to be a bit distasteful as given it plays into some of the black comedy aspects, including the main character's own sexual intrigue in dangerous play. That aspect, of a woman asserting control, and how it unnerves the men around her, is perhaps the most revelatory aspect of Elle. Despite being a victim, Michele is also not built up to be a sympathetic character, but she is relatable in a human way, which makes following her as she tries to get a handle on her mixed-up feelings all the more fascinating to explore, finding empowerment within the most vulnerable of positions. The film may not bring Verhoeven back to the forefront of commercial filmmaking, but as someone capable of making a film that skates the fine line between gut-churning tragedy and vulgar absurdity, this is certainly as good as he's been in a decade or two.
©2017 Vince Leo